By Alexandria Sage
PARIS (Reuters) - While economic gloom drives President Francois Hollande's own poll ratings into the doldrums, his interior minister's tough line on crime is making him France's most popular politician.
Images of the tough-talking Manuel Valls racing around the country to round up radical Islamist cells or nab corrupt cops contrast with the failing efforts of Hollande's government to halt a spate of industrial lay-offs.
As long as Valls does not appear as a rival to Hollande, his popularity is proving vital political ballast to a young left-wing government which conservative and far-right rivals would prefer to paint as soft on crime.
"If people feel the person tasked with embodying security and public order is what they are looking for, then so much the better," Valls said in the southern port city of Marseille last week after dismantling a police unit where 15 officers are being held on suspicion of drugs trafficking and extortion.
Three separate opinion polls in the past two weeks rate Valls as France's most popular politician and rising, as his no-nonsense manner plays well among voters on the right and left who are feeling disempowered, angry or broke.
His approval ratings have risen as high as 57 percent, while Hollande's have slumped to as little as 41 percent. His role is all the more crucial given that delinquency has shot up the list of French concerns to third place after health and jobs.
One French news magazine dubbed Valls "vice president" - a position that does not exist in France. Others cite him as a possible future prime minister.
Valls, 50, has even drawn comparisons with Hollande's conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, who used the high-profile interior minister job to sideline cabinet rivals and ultimately succeed Jacques Chirac as president.
But for now his popularity is an advantage to Hollande as his crime-fighting goals are supported by both the left and the right, said analyst Francois Miquet-Marty at pollster Viavoice.
"It gives him (Hollande) political weight," said Miquet-Marty. "When Valls talks, he's watched, he's listened to, he becomes one of the strong men of the government, a possible prime minister for tomorrow if Hollande needs that."
"It would be a handicap if he were politically competitive but he's not," he added, noting Valls' repeated insistence in his speeches that he is doing the bidding of Hollande.
Fed up with tit-for-tat crime gang violence that has grown so bad a local mayor wants the army brought in, residents in Marseille have welcomed Valls like a hero.
Promising police reinforcements, the telegenic dark-haired minister has posed for photographs with locals, shaken hands with shop owners and spoken up for honest cops.
"He won't fix Marseille's security problem by himself but at least he's moving. He gives the impression that he wants to do something," said Francoise Albert, a Marseille school nurse.
Born in Spain and later naturalized French, Valls learned the importance of a tough cop image as ex-prime minister Lionel Jospin's spokesman a decade ago. Jospin's 2002 presidential election defeat was partly blamed on his being seen as soft on crime.
Valls then spent more than ten years as mayor of a racially mixed Paris suburb before trying his luck to be the Socialist Party's candidate for the 2012 presidential election. When Hollande won the ticket, Valls became his campaign spokesman and was rewarded with the high-profile interior minister post.
He immediately flexed his law-and-order muscles, drawing parallels with Sarkozy by ordering the break-up of illegal Roma camps - an echo of one of the outgoing president's most controversial policies that surprised many on the left.
Yet with all his tough talking, Valls has steered clear of the controversial rhetoric of Sarkozy, who caused widespread offence by pledging to crack down on "scum" and blaming Roma youths for a crime wave.
Valls drafted in extra police to quell riots by disaffected youths in the northern city of Amiens in August. But he has avoided suggesting that poorly integrated Muslims are behind tensions in poor suburbs, as Sarkozy's government did.
For now, Valls is performing the political role Hollande brought him in for - keeping right-wing critics at bay.
Conservatives have grudgingly acknowledged that Valls is doing a good job and even hardliner Nadine Morano last week grumbled that France was swept up in a wave of "Vallsmania".
(Additional reporting by Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Marseille; Editing by Catherine Bremer, Mark John and Peter Graff)